The good news last week is that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has agreed to hear the case that there was Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. Several UK court cases, petitions and speeches in parliament have failed to get the government to investigate and publish the result of the research into Russian interference. Last year, cross party MPs took a legal claim to the ECtHR in Strasbourg. This court is not part of the EU but is attached to the Council of Europe.
This case is not about the referendum result, or about Brexit and its consequences. It deals with the fact that the UK government has ignored warnings about foreign powers interfering with the political process in the UK. This is about democracy and security. And about transparency which the UK has always prided itself of as major contributor to Transparency International.
Failing to act on the Russia report
Byline Times states:
“In response to this glaring and potentially compromising lack of electoral and national security, a group of parliamentarians took the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last March, with the support of campaigning journalism organisation The Citizens. The cross-party group of MPs – including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and the SNP’s Alyn Smith – claim the Government is infringing our “right to free and fair elections” by failing to act on the findings of the Russia Report.
“The court in Strasbourg has now indicated the case both has merit and may be designated an ‘impact case’. It has written to the Government inviting it to respond in detail to the allegations by 26 April.”
Are UK elections not fair and free?
Very soon after the 2016 referendum, investigative journalists started to research and write about Russian interference in the UK’s democratic process. It took a while before the media, apart from the Observer and the Guardian picked up on these findings.
The government itself has denied any such possibility, and has suppressed the results of a Russia report which showed that there has been Russian involvement in UK politics. It became clear that No 10 was not interested in pursuing evidence of the obvious danger to our electoral freedom. In parliament, there were increasingly politicians (from Labour, SNP and Green Party) who voiced concerns about Russian influence on British politics. See this useful compilation by Jon Danzig of their speeches on this from 2017 to date (to a glaringly mostly empty Commons chamber) on YouTube.
Was the Referendum democratic?
As early as 2017, a group of academics, including a renowned lawyer, calling themselves ‘Action for Europe’ delivered a letter to Europe House, London for delivery to the EU. The letter had over 4,000 signatories. It stated that the Leave vote had been illegally procured. There was evidence of data theft, overspend and foreign interference. The group demanded that the EU should not carry on negotiations with the UK government. There was no mandate by the people.
Sadly, the EU answered that they considered the question of the mandate for Brexit a UK internal affair.
“On August 7, we received by email a response from the Council’s Directorate-General Communication and Information. The only passage of relevance in that letter stated:
‘According to Article 50 TEU, it is left to the Member State concerned to decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.’
From this we take it that the Council is proposing to take no action to investigate and examine the legitimacy of the process by which the UK government professed to invoke Article 50, nor to initiate any reference to the European Union Court of Justice for a forensic determination of the issue.”
Credible evidence of interference by Russia
Despite several journalists publishing more and more evidence of Russian links to the Leave campaign, the government triggered Article 50. It carried on calling the referendum one of the clearest decisions by the people of Britain, despite ongoing legal challenges. One challenge was brought in the UK High Court, as reported by Leighday.
“In their High Court challenge – which was brought by the MPs along with Lord Strasburger, Baroness Wheatcroft and The Citizens – it was claimed that the UK Government acted unlawfully in 2019. The then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, decided not to arrange an independent investigation into the conclusions of the Intelligence and Security Committee in its reports ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ and ‘Russia’. The Parliamentarians and the Citizens believe that the reports, together with the Government’s response, provide credible evidence of interference by Russia in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the 2016 European Union membership referendum and the 2019 general election.
“They say that there was failure of the UK Government to investigate these credible allegations of interference in the UK electoral system. They also claim that they fail to have in place a legislative and policy framework that will identify and protect against interference in the UK electoral system. This breaches positive obligations under Article 3, Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which secure the right to free and fair elections.”
The High Court did not hear the case fully because it had been an advisory referendum. There was thus no legal case to be made and the result still stands according to Jessica Symor, a barrister reporting on LBC radio. Furthermore, the UK High Court found that the case could not be made because of a technicality of electoral law. This sets a three month time limit within which cases of electoral irregularity have to be submitted.
The Electoral Commission investigation
The Electoral Commission investigated expenditure by Vote Leave on the 2016 referendum. The amount of money involved was £675,315 paid to the firm Aggregate Q. This was the conduit for Cambridge Analytica to supply covertly obtained data on British voters to Vote Leave. This amounted to an overspend on electoral limits by Vote Leave if it could be proved.
In a case brought by the Good Law Project, the money also paid by Darren Grimes and Veterans Britain amounted to their contributions to the Vote Leave electoral campaign. In particular Grimes, the responsible person for ‘BeLeave’ and registered as an individual campaigner, had far exceeded the electoral limits for this. However, in the end it was found he had properly registered ‘BeLeave’ and so the Electoral Commission had to exonerate him and pay him a quarter of a million of his legal costs.
Vote Leave responsible person, David Halsall, was fined only £60,000 for the inaccurate expenditure return of Vote Leave. This expensive tale shows that the system that protects our UK democratic processes is not working. The Electoral Commission has tools, legal and financial, that are too feeble for nimble and collusive operators intent on swinging a nation-beating election. There are still unanswered questions about the source of over half a million pounds, that enabled Vote Leave to buy the data that helped them to jinx voters. Hence the interest now in the Russian diplomat’s reported boast, see below.
Russian Links to extreme right-wing groups
The story of how data on British voters was obtained from Cambridge Analytica was investigated by Carole Cadwaller, who reported it as early as 2017 in the Guardian:
“There are three strands to this story. How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.”
Since the change of presidency in the US and the start of the war in Ukraine, US authorities, keen to sanction oligarchs with links to Vladimir Putin, have been more active in investigating Russian links among the super-rich, and the extreme right wing (including Donald Trump) in the USA.
Links to the Russian embassy in London
The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a surge of interest in the right-wing press. Sanctions were to be imposed on Russians with links to Putin. At last, there appeared more news comment of Russian influence on the referendum, as the Daily Express reported in February 2022:
“The threatening comments are quoted in journalist Luke Harding’s book, ‘Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West’, published in 2020.
Speaking to a fellow diplomat, Mr Yakovenko reportedly said: “We have crushed the British to the ground.
“They are on their knees, and they will not rise for a very long time.”
Mr Yakovenko left London under a cloud in 2019 after the Mail on Sunday revealed he may have worked as a Soviet spy…”
Russian Links in Conservative Party
The evidence of Russian links within the Conservative Party of the UK has been gathered by a member of the Conservative Party, Sergei Cristo, who tried to get the security services to act, according to a recent article by Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian.
No wonder then that a cross-party group of politicians is now trying to get the ECtHR in Strasbourg to investigate further. It does indeed appear that Russians linked to Putin have tethered the Conservative party by bonds of finance and influence. Our elected government is still declining to act in what is in the security interest of the British people. It is a good thing that the Ukraine war is now galvanising interest in Russian plotting with regard to the Brexit referendum. Even in the right-wing pro-Brexit press like the Express. Let us hope the ECtHR will at last elicit a full report from HM Government by April 2023.